Guest blog: Pete’s journal of life in Sierra Leone 2014

Catch up with Pete’s latest installment about his time in Sierra Leone.

Pete SimpsonOver five weeks in Sierra Leone I spent many days at the Connaught Hospital where the incredible work that the team from King’s College were doing there in the Isolation Centre was awe inspiring. Their dedication to duty, risking their lives every time they entered and exited the Isolation Unit is a testament to the spirit of mankind. To me they are the true heroes of Sierra Leone and I salute them all.

Once I had met the ambulance crews and met the staff from King’s at the Connaught Hospital it was time to get stuck in to the task of sorting out the ambulance service. I had to identify the problems with the service (of which there were and sadly still are many) and find a local solution.

My days would start by waking up around 5am, taking my temperature, anti-malarial tablets and calling my wife Wendy via the intermittent internet connection in the hotel. With hundreds of power cuts/surges each day the WiFi router often got fried or needed to be rebooted.

Either of my wonderful drivers, Osman or Dauda, would pick me up around 7am and we would head to the Ebola Command and Control Centre (ECCC) to check in with Catherine the Ambulance Coordinator for a morning briefing. As the ambulance service and the ECCC only runs from 6am to 6pm we always seemed to be playing catch up.

Over 500 calls a day were coming in to the 117 emergency call centre number from people in the western area of Sierra Leone who thought they had symptoms of Ebola. We had 16 ambulances and most days the isolation centres and Ebola treatment centres were full with people who had self-presented at the door so getting our sick people in the community into hospital by Ambulance was a daily uphill challenge.

We had to utilise all of our scant resources to the best of our ability, well the best of Catherine’s ability. She was a local Sierra Leone girl and knew the people, the country and the system and I truly believe it is because of her skills in diplomacy that so many lives have been saved.

The next job on my list was to visit the “Ebola Warriors”, as the ambulance crews came to be known, for a morning “Hello and how are my Warriors today?” I think they liked the fact that someone genuinely seemed to care about them. I spent the majority of the next five weeks talking to the Ebola Warriors about the problems they faced each day and trying to work out possible solutions. Most of their issues and concerns could be addressed if I could secure funding and help from either the Government of Sierra Leone and/or several NGO’s.

I then attended meeting after meeting with high ranking officials from the Government of Sierra Leone and multiple NGO’s trying to negotiate a better deal for the “Ebola Warriors”. My main concern (one of many I hasten to add) was about the safety of the crews and the patients. The ambulances had not been washed in the three months since they had arrived from Dubai.

Two of the 40 Ebola Warriors had already died of Ebola. Although we don’t know how they caught it I had my suspicions that it could be from their filthy ambulances. There was no fleet management programme and several of them had developed faults that had not been repaired. Six had no working siren, four had no working air conditioning in the back where the patient went, and several had been involved in accidents with no opportunity to be repaired. If we had carried on at that rate we would have either had no ambulances or no crew.

Added to that the patients were now refusing to get in to the filthy ambulances, afraid of what they might catch if they actually got in. One patient was so angry about the state of the filthy ambulance sent to pick him up he punched out on of the side windows in disgust.

Then I met a man called Boris. Boris was from an organisation that could potentially secure the funding to build us the super-size car wash facilities we desperately needed to decontaminate the ambulances. Our plan was to build a UK style ambulance depot here in Freetown that would accommodate all the fleet management needs of the ambulance service in the western area of Sierra Leone. We would take a sort of “hub and spoke” approach with one central depot and several smaller facilities as required.

The main depot would be able to accommodate the following requirements:

  • Decontaminating the outside of the ambulances with chlorine solution then washing this off with soapy water.
  • Decontaminating the inside back patient area of the ambulance with chlorine solution, including cleaning the stretcher then washing off with soapy water.
  • Decontaminating the front cab area of the ambulance with chlorine solution then washing it off with soapy water.
  • Restocking the ambulance with consumables including personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Refuelling the ambulance.
  • Minor repairs to the ambulance.

It’s a UK model and although our ambulance service in the UK is 24/7, I was convinced that with a little bit of tweaking we could adapt it to fit the current Sierra Leone model of an ambulance service that runs from 7.30am-6pm. If was to be successful, I thought, Boris and I could potentially replicate it all over Sierra Leone. Well that was the plan and pretty much became my focus for the remainder of my stay in Sierra Leone. Boris and I became good friends during the next few weeks with both of us becoming “serial meeting attenders”. We needed to secure financial backing in order for our plan to build depots to work.

Although there were “setbacks” and “game changers” as Boris called them, I truly loved my time in Sierra Leone. Despite the abject poverty and the daily death threat of Ebola, the people genuinely seemed happier than those of any other nation on Earth. How can people with so few material possessions have found such happiness? It was a question I would take back to the “land of plenty” and ponder over for many a long day….

Sadly on Sunday, 30th November I said my goodbyes. I had made so many genuine friends during my short time in such a beautiful country. Some like Catherine, Boris, Sylvester, Dauda, Osman and Stacie will be life-long friends. It had been a life-changing experience going to Sierra Leone and despite the daily challenges I feel that in some small way I may have helped some people during my stay.

On the day I left Sierra Leone, just as I was boarding the plane to fly back to the UK I found out that our financial backers had bailed out of the plan for a fleet management programme which I believe would have effectively saved the ambulance service of Sierra Leone. I wanted to sprint down the runway and scream “NO”, at the top of my voice but sadly no one would have heard me.

There’s only thing for it, I thought as we taxied for take-off. I have to come back, write a new plan, a plan B and come back….Then I wondered what my wife Wendy would say when I told her!

Thank you for reading this journal of my time in Sierra Leone. Be good to each other and stay safe out there my friends, where ever you are in the world.

With much love,

Pete x

About East of England Ambulance Service

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